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Will Cheek talks about the new TN law that lets bars be bars

Ruble Sanderson, the proprietor of four of Lower Broadway’s iconic honky-tonks, has paid more fines than he can remember over the years for violating the state’s liquor laws.

He chalked it up to the cost of doing business in Tennessee.

The violations had nothing to do with the way he served alcohol or how responsible his wait staff was with customers and were not because he intentionally decided to break the rules, Sanderson said.

Rather, he was cited for not persuading the tourists, night owls and after-dinner crowd who frequent his live music venues to buy more food with their drinks.

Now a new state law is giving Sanderson and other business owners the chance to legally operate their establishments without penalty as they essentially were intended to be: as bars. Saloons, pubs, watering holes, taverns. Until now — and probably unbeknownst to most social drinkers — all were illegal in Tennessee.

"They were stupid and archaic rules that we are glad to see go," said Sanderson, who, along with his wife, Brenda, owns Legends Corner, Second Fiddle, The Stage on Broadway and Nashville Crossroads. "There was this tremendous pressure to get people to buy food. But that’s not why people come to our places."

The new liquor laws, quietly passed last year by state lawmakers, for the first time allow establishments to operate as bars, selling more booze than food.

The old law required food to be the biggest single sales item for any establishment with a liquor license. The new law still requires that food be sold, but new "limited service licenses" give business owners the option of cutting their food sales to as little as 15 percent without breaking the law.

Boost to small clubs

The new rules also allow smaller bars to open for the first time, by lowering the number of seats required in a liquor serving establishment from 75 to 45 and adding bar stools to the seat count.

Thus far, between 40 and 50 establishments in the state have sought the new designation, according to the Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the state agency that issues the licenses.

It’s a small number compared to the 2,700 liquor-by-the-drink establishments in the state, but officials expect more new bars to crop up and point out that hotels, private clubs and single-occasion events also are included in that number.

Most of Nashville’s downtown honky-tonks have made the transition, cutting back on food served to focus on drinks. The seating changes have been a boon for clearing a wider space on their dance floors, too, which previously had to be small enough to accommodate a larger number of seats.

So, what was the first actual bar in Tennessee? The answer: Tribe Restaurant & Night Club in the 1500 block of Church Street, regularly voted at the top of "best gay bar in Nashville" contests.

Small bars are beginning to pop up as well.

Three weeks ago, Jody Myers opened the Neighbors of Sylvan Park bar, squeezed into a narrow space between a hair salon and pet shop.

Before the revamped rules, Myers couldn’t have opened the place.

"I just wanted to open a kind of Cheers for regulars" in the Sylvan Park neighborhood, Myers said. The tab for the new license totaled $4,000, a much steeper license fee than former liquor license fees ranging from $750 to $1,200 under the old rules.

Some small-business owners say they’re concerned about the size of the fee hike.

"I expect this will cause some to go beer only, which ultimately could hurt their competitiveness and possibly put them out of business," said Mervin Louque, a sound engineer who operates the small music and drink venue Douglas Corner Cafe on Eighth Avenue South.

Attorney Will Cheek, who represents food- and liquor-serving establishments, said that most of his clients are getting by a lot cheaper with the new fees.

Enforcement activities by the Alcoholic Beverage Commission had temporarily shut down clients including Buck Wild Saloon and Traxx, establishments patrons would visit after dinner. Other places would routinely pay $4,000 a quarter in fines after ABC audits of their receipts showed food constituted less than 50 percent of their sales, Cheek said.

"The issue just came to a head, and you had a lot of bar owners throwing their support behind each other," Cheek said. "Now, you’ve got a lot of Tennessee icons that can issue a sigh of relief that don’t have to worry that the ABC is breathing down their necks."

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